The benefits of civil society for Bahrain and for you.
Introduction to the ABC series: Civil society is never a Zero-sum game
Citizens for Bahrain’s “ABC of civil society” series aims to explore what civil society is and why it matters for Bahrain. We aim to keep things simple and look at the basic but essential concepts as well as looking at international and Bahraini laws which protect and encourage civil society.
What is a Zero-sum game?
In a zero-sum game there are only a limited number of resources, so the only way for one side to profit is at the expense of others. The logic of the zero-sum game is that if my neighbor is winning, I must be losing – In order for me to profit, I must do so at the expense of others. This mindset encourages us to think of everybody as rivals and go out of our way to undermine those around us.
For civil society to be civil “society”, it must always distance itself from the zero-sum game mindset. Particularly in a society like Bahrain’s where civil society organizations and institutions tend to be small and struggle to make their voices heard; there is a need for different groups to work together and see each other as allies – even if they share somewhat different agendas.
What is civil society?
Civil society refers to individuals and groups of citizens working together on issues of common interest. Civil society is by definition separate from the government and business sectors, but it may seek to influence both. Civil society organizations are not run for profit. Many of those involved are volunteers with a desire to better their community or address specific issues.
However, to date, civil society groups in Bahrain have not been particularly successful in working together, often seeing their different agendas, different audiences and different sources of support as compelling reasons for going it alone. The result has been that moderate and progressive civil society voices have tended to be very weak.
This was particularly the case after the 2011 unrest when most activists joined one political camp or another. This left very few people or organizations in the middle ground in a position to promote reconciliation and national unity.
How does Bahrain’s Constitution support civil society?
The 2001 National Action Charter enshrined the rights of civil society organisations, and also paved the way for the establishment of political societies. The Charter obliged the Government to support these societies and organisations financially, without forcing them to comply with any rules, other than adherence to the rule of law. By clearly stating the rights and freedoms of citizens, the Charter supported independent activity by the public for the good of society.
According to this Constitution: “The state ensures the freedom to form non- governmental, scientific, cultural, professional associations and unions at a national level for legitimate purposes through peaceful means under terms and conditions as may be prescribed by law”.
This need for solidarity and common cause among civil society organizations is perfectly encapsulated by a famous quote by the German figure, Martin Niemöller, who spoke out against Hitler and spent seven years in a concentration camp for his efforts:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
If civil society organizations are divided and see each other as rivals, then they are often too weak to stand up to the forces of intolerance and extremism who are hostile to their agenda.
When we stand together on issues of women’s rights, support for the disabled, the cause of minorities and protecting the most vulnerable in society, we force people to listen and we can change attitudes.
All too often local civil society has been dominated by a handful of energetic figures and when they drop out of the picture organizations fold and initiatives grind to a halt. We should be promoting each other, supporting each other and working together so that our activity reaches a greater range of people and more young people and passionate Bahrainis become involved – we must be greater than the sum of our parts.
ABC of civil society
UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights